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21 December, 2015

Three Lives of Olena Chekan

The readers of The Ukrainian Week will remember Olena Chekan for her bright, passionate and always unexpected publications. This is the case when the personality of the author and the pulse of the articles were a perfect match

I have lived my life in vain, and now it's too late to change anything... When I hear such things, and I hear them quite often, sometimes from people that are thirty-forty years old, I always recall Olena Chekan. She has proved to me that it is never too late to start from scratch, with a clean slate. Never.

The readers of The Ukrainian Week will remember Olena Chekan for her bright, passionate and always unexpected publications. This is the case when the personality of the author and the pulse of the articles were a perfect match. Imagining our magazine without her interviews, reports and sketches is hard, but nevertheless... we are still around.

Chekan's name already went down in the history of Ukrainian journalism. Future researchers will probably be surprised to learn that Olena was rather an amateur than a professional journalist and, besides, a Russian speaker. Well, her story and life reflect the choices made by many Ukrainians who found their way in life after the Independence.

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In her young days, she dreamed of becoming an actress, and so she did. Born in Ukraine to a family that lived in Kyiv for several generations, she left home to conquer Moscow and succeeded, winning one chance in a thousand and entering the drama school of the Vakhtangov Theater, the famous Boris Shchukin Theater Institute. After that, all theater and shooting stages seemed to be opened to the temperamental, intelligent and amazingly beautiful girl. However, her proud character stood in the way of her career, because a star's lifestyles in those days required certain compromises that were unacceptable for Olena. She left the Moscow upper crust (the true elite, crème de la crème of the capital's artistic community) to return to her native Kyiv, but she naturally remained Russocentric, focused on the Russian literature, Russian traditions, and the Russian scale of values. As she grew older, she became increasingly interested in her roots. While in Moscow she tried to get rid of the slightest signs of her "Little Russian" accent that was invariably a target for jeers in the capital, in Kyiv she immersed in the Ukrainian culture, literature and, of course, the language, placing under scrutiny everything that previously seemed unquestionable. Soon, she became a full-fledged Ukrainian intellectual.

Shortly, Olena Chekan had a chance to pass an exam: she came to "1+1" TV channel, which at that time was not so glamorous, with the script of a documentary about Taras Shevchenko. I know few authors who take up the subject only after having studied, as far as possible, virtually everything they could find about it. She learned all the facts of his biography, personalities, contexts, and all the texts, to a letter, to a comma, to a tittle. In the case of Shevchenko, this was difficult because of the immensity of the material and easy at the same time because of the scale of the Poet's personality, his charisma, and his charms that could be revealed, surprisingly, through a professional actress who had been taught the art of reincarnation. The hero of "My Shevchenko" documentary series, in which I also happened to be involved, was full of life, authentic, appealing, and certainly a genius.

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Then the next step followed: Olena Chekan joined The Ukrainian Week. We don't like to comment on a woman's age, especially if the woman is an actress, but speaking frankly: can anyone recall of someone else becoming a reporter – without an education, without any training – at the age of sixty? I am not aware of any other example. And she was not just a reporter: Olena leaped into the breach when the topic was complicated, when the material was overwhelming, or when the object, or rather, the subject of our interest was inaccessible. She interviewed politicians, diplomats, scientists, artists, former spies, priests and fellow journalists, and it never felt like the interviewer was any inferior to the interviewee. It turned out that the Institute of Journalism is not all that it takes, when you have culture, experience, and ideas. And you learn faster when you come of age.

The life of a journalist is short, in the sense that the texts very rarely survive the author. At best, only the name remains, but not for long. The exceptions are few and far between. Two years after the life of Olena Chekan was taken by disease, her legacy is still in demand! The Austrian publishing house Der Konterfei published a book "In the Search of a Free Ukraine," a compilation of her interviews published at different times by The Ukrainian Week. André Glucksmann, Vaclav Havel, Tomas Venclova, Alain Blum, Krzysztof Zanussi, Valentin Silvestrov, Akhmed Zakayev... The book has an advantage, which is a drawback at the same time: it was published in English. Now, international intellectuals starving for high-quality information on Ukraine and from Ukraine will have food for thought. Even though the publication is not yet available in the original language, as an ad hoc solution, we can still go to The Ukrainian Week website and enter "Olena Chekan" in the search bar. Hello again, pani Olena!

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